Benevolent sexism is a form of sexism that is experienced by the perpetrator as subjectively benevolent. In other words, the intent is often loving, aimed at the well-being of the woman in question. The problem is that the behaviors motivated by this kind of sexism do, in fact, lead to harm. So what kinds of behaviors fall into this category? Behaviors that are based on characterizations of women as needing to be protected, supported, shielded from unpleasantness, and revered might all produce this kind of harm. Examples include:
- Swooping in to get the suitcase she is carrying when she is capable of carrying it herself.
- Stepping in to protect her when she can actually stand up for herself.
- Taking on the additional responsibility so she doesn’t have to concern herself.
- Deciding not to tell her the unpleasant news so she won’t worry.
- Making the decision for her because you know what is best for her.
- Telling her what to do rather than letting her work out her own solutions.
Helpful, or at least benign? Unfortunately, no. A number of recent studies have begun to document the unintended negative consequences of these kinds of interactions, leading to the conclusion that they undermine women’s independence, autonomy, and competence. When experimenters expose women to benevolently sexist interactions (for example, by asking them to carry something, then having a man volunteer to do it instead, or by offering women help and guidance because they are women) a number of negative outcomes occur. Benevolent sexism produces self-doubt about competence and decreased self-esteem, lowers women’s performance on cognitive tasks, causes them to define their worth on gender-stereotypical traits rather than on their actual abilities, makes them less likely to protect themselves and to speak out against injustices, etc. In other words, benevolent sexism undermines women’s competence, fostering feelings of helplessness, and contributing to their victimization.“It’s not enough to desire good things for others, and do what is in our power to actualize those desired goods.”
The call to love others is central to a life of following Christ. We all know that loving our enemies is difficult. It turns out that loving those that are not our enemies—even those that are easy to love—is also difficult. It’s not enough to desire good things for others, and do what is in our power to actualize those desired goods. We also need wisdom in discerning whether what we do for them actually will lead to good things for them.
Avoiding Benevolent Sexism
So how can we move forward in loving women well? There are no easy answers. When patterns of interaction are so embedded in social norms, it takes more than good intentions to find a way out. Look at how long it’s taking to dismantle apartheid. But there are a few things that can be done. Don’t assume you know how to love; cultivate empathy so you can discern how your well-intentioned behavior will be experienced. Question socially-sanctioned ways of “loving well.” Become more aware. Start noticing the patterns, in yourself and in others. When you catch yourself acting paternalistically, do something different. Take the time to reinforce the competence and autonomy of the women with whom you interact. Ask permission to help. Support decisions women make. Have high expectations. Ask what she would like you to do, instead of assuming. Be willing to defy social expectations. Explain why you are doing (or not doing) certain things. Don’t expect it to be easy; you are, after all, swimming upstream. And know that even if you are not loving perfectly, you are loving better. And isn’t this what life is all about: to learn to love as God loved us?